Oh boy, this is gonna be a tough one.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first: what is ‘Nihonjinron’ (日本人論)? Well, in the strictest sense it is a genre of literature that focuses on the peculiarities and uniqueness of Japanese culture and society. However, the more modern and widespread usage of the word applies to the discussion Japan’s specialness. Whether it be through music, newspapers, TV or movies, casual usage of Nihonjinron permeates nearly every aspect of modern Japanese culture. It may not seem immediately obvious, but whenever anything seems to be giving off a vibe of “Isn’t Japan wonderful and interesting and unique? Woohoo Japan!” then it has elements of Nihonjinron.
Of all the aspects of Japanese culture and society, Nihonjinron confuses and confounds me the most. There are some things I adore (the public transport, onsen), somethings I despise (the attitude to work), and some things where I’m indifferent (the concept of tatemae and honne). But when it comes to Nihonjinron, I find my opinion about it changing every time I think about it, ranging from the most insidious thing in Japan right now all the way to harmless fun. It really does depend on the context: how the assertion of Japan’s uniqueness is used, what is being said, why it’s being said, and what the goal of it is.
A bit of history: Nihonjinron first came into play in the pre-war period, when Japan began to pound the nationalistic drum. Japan convinced itself of the Emperor’s divinity and the nation’s inherent superiority over its neighbours, culminating in the invasion of China in 1937. This is Nihonjinron at its most downright nastiest. Japan is holy land, and those savages should be grateful that Japan would so much as grace them with an invasion was the attitude of the day.
Fast forward to 1945 when Japan has been defeated, the nation is on its knees and the occupied forces roundly debunked any belief in the superiority of Japan’s sovereign rights. Thus began a period where Japan shrugged off Nihonjinron and, initially through force and later through choice, became increasingly westernized. Japan rose from the ashes to become the second largest economy in the world.
And yet, through this growth and internationalization, a growing voice decried the loss of Japan’s soul: the carefully woven social fabric seemed to be unraveling in the blind pursuit of the economic miracle. The voice wasn’t that loud though: business prospered, money flowed, and life was good. Nihonjinron was firmly put aside. The new focal point was profit margins.
And then it all went to crap in the early 90s. The economic bubble burst, and Japan has never really recovered since then. Suddenly those voices grew much louder and firmer. Japan had some soul searching to do. Where was Japan going? Where should it go? What did it mean to be Japanese? As if it was all impeccably worked out beforehand like a badly written TV show, they found the answer growing dust on their shelves of history, in the form of Nihonjinron.
But the Nihonjinron of today is not the Nihonjinron of the pre-war. It is a reworked form, one that is not so much “Other countries, boo!” As it is “Japan, woohoo!” It is a Nihonjinron that saw an increased interest in traditional Japanese arts and crafts, a push in domestic tourism, and casting aside coca-colas for the health benefits of matcha. It is a Nihonjinron that revels and delights in the rediscovery of that most nebulous of things: the soul of Japan.
Now that, you might think, is fair enough. This modern version of Nihonjinron wasn’t so bad. But as history has proven, Japan has a frustrating habit of not tempering their good intentions, of taking things way too far. Piggybacking on this idea of a renaissance in traditional culture (a stage which most modern nations tend to go through), pretty much everything throughout Japan leapt onto this new-style of Nihonjinron, to the point where you have today’s situation: you cannot move for TV shows exploring onsen towns or historical neighborhoods, tasting Japanese food or interviewing foreigners about what they like about Japan. The same permeates domestic music and movies as well. You might be thinking that this is nothing new, that every country does the occasional chest thumping now and then. And you’d be right. Ah, but that’s the thing: it happens now and then. These Nihonjinron-style approaches to Japanese media are 70-80% of everything, and I am not exaggerating. Sometimes living in Japan feels like living in one giant advertisement for Japan. Indeed, whole TV shows are unabashedly one long commercial, and its always a “Woohoo! Japan!” type of show.
Not only is this new-style Nihonjinron utterly omnipresent, then, but the extent to which they try to claim things as being “Woohoo! Japan!” is utterly ridiculous. The idea that Japan has four seasons is a classic example. It does, of course, but the implication is that other nations don’t have four seasons, and even if that were true there’s the bizarre assumption that Japan is somehow superior for its number of seasons. Japanese food is upheld for its health benefits, which again is in many respects true, but once again things go too far, to the point where even when after the claims have been thoroughly debunked it will continue to be a thing because ‘that’s how things are done in Japan.’
Coupled to this is the more problematic attitude that, if Japan is good at something or is known for doing something well, it means that all other countries and cultures are inferior and don’t even register on the same scale as Japan’s quality. For example, gargling with cold water has been proven to have no benefit whatsoever, yet it continues to be pushed as a habit from as young as Elementary school. But again, as with the seasons, you might think that that’s a harmless thing in of itself – it’s not like gargling with cold water is BAD for you, and instills a conscious effort of maintain one’s health – but the other problem of this attitude is how Japan will hold itself on a pedestal upon learning of how little other countries gargle. It won’t ever be explicit in this sense of superiority, but it is so heavily implied that it might as well be. Add to that the assumption that nationality is equals personality and things get exponentially more misguided. Yes, not everyone in the UK takes their shoes off at home. Some people do. It is nothing to do with nationality.
The most ridiculous examples come from whenever they interview foreigners in Japan, be it folk on the street or celebrities, the inevitable question of “Do you like Japan?” is always rolled out. Of course, the answers are always yes, and upon expanding on the point we’ll hear about how these foreigners love the Japanese food, the shrines and temples, how polite the Japanese people are, etc. etc. Reporters, studio staff and audience alike all pat each other on the back and congratulate each other on how great Japan is and how wonderful it is to be Japanese. The Nihonjinron is maintained. But even with a little bit of thought this whole approach falls apart. Firstly, what else are visitors to a country going to say? Of course they’re going to say “Yes, Japan’s great.” That’s why they’re visiting! And even if they hold negative opinions about Japan they won’t voice them to a reporter unless explicitly asked to do so: it’s called being polite and gracious to the country one is visiting. Tatemae, in other words. And once again, there’s this vibe that to speak well of Japan equates to speaking ill of other countries. Oh, so that American tourist talks about how safe Japan is? Then that means America is dangerous! That British person talks about how great Japanese food is? Then that means all British food is terrible! Thank good we live in Japan and are Japanese! Woohoo, Japan!
It’s this zero sum game and the all invasive presence of this new style of Nihonjinron that could be making this otherwise well-intentioned movement of redefining Japan’s qualities and it rediscovering it’s soul that could prove to be damaging. Japan is a nation that is in thrall with itself, and often self-congratulatory to the point of arrogance. Is it all bad? Of course not: unlike the UK where the default mindset is constant negativity and embarrassment of the local culture, it’s nice to see a country take pride in itself for a change. And make no mistake: the Nihonjinron of today is not the Nihonjinron of pre-war times. Modernization and interaction with the outside world, particularly the states, have effectively made any possibility of returning to an imperialist and isolated state impossible. Oh sure, you have fringe and racist groups who would love to see that, and they expouse Nihonjinron in its old fashioned form. But they’re just that: fringe groups, and that is not the form of Nihonjinron that I’m talking about here. I am talking about the form which, yes, may be helping a country maintain its pride and cultural identity, but is at risk of becoming so overpowering and all consuming that Japan is at risk of closing in on itself in a “Woohoo! Japan!” circlejerk, as the outside world drifts away under false assumptions about how it compares to Japan. And Japan has rarely fared well when it is isolated.
“NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME!” *slams door, plays emo music.
Japan doesn’t need that. Not in this day and age. It can’t expect to hold the world at arm’s length and survive in the global world. Other countries, other economies, have caught up with and surpassed Japan. It is not the economic darling of the world anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. The population is shrinking. The last thing Japan needs to do is turn inward and keep nodding to itself that everything is fine and everybody loves Japan and is the envy of the world.
Japan doesn’t need to admit defeat, though. It doesn’t need to be ashamed. It doesn’t need to swallow its pride. It’s not about that. Nihonjinron can still exist, but it must be tempered. It should not be “Woohoo, Japan! Everywhere else is jealous!” it should be, “Yeah, other places are pretty cool, but we’re Japan, and we have this to bring to the table.”
That’s an attitude they could be truly proud of.